In order for Clark Kent to become Superman, he had to hop into a phone booth to change his clothes. Bill and Ted once went on an “excellent adventure” through time traveling in a magical phone booth. As pop culture dictates, it is undeniable that phone booths have had a significant impact on both American culture and the cultures of other nations. However, the time has come where phone booths and other pay phones have become obsolete.
The first phone booth was designed by William Gray in 1889. It was implanted in a Connecticut bank. The difference between Gray’s model and its successors is that callers could wait to pay until after the completion of the call. In 1898, Western Electric changed this system and implemented the prepay system still used today. By 1902, pay telephones had reached such popularity that there were 81,000 installed in the United States. In 1905, the first outdoor model was installed in Cincinnati. It had a wooden structure. In fact, the glass booths weren’t implemented until the 1950s. However, in recent years, the number of pay phones, especially phone booths is rapidly declining.
Pay phones have certainly seen their heyday. Today, cell phone service providers vie for subscribers. However, pay phones were public. In order for the phone company to earn money, they had to attract more callers. Companies would pay tens of thousands of dollars to a city for a permit to install a phone in a certain location. Some of these places included poorer rural and urban areas. Even today a large number of low-income families do not have phone service in their homes. Many feel that eliminating pay phones would be greatly detrimental to these people.
Despite their imminent extinction, telephone booths have proven useful for other purposes. The city of Shanghai, China has converted 500 former telephone booths into WiFi hotspots. On one hand, this is a positive change because the booth is being used. On the other hand it is somewhat ironic because it new purpose is powering a successor technology. Phone booths are also still useful for advertisers. Just because people no longer enter the booth to make calls, they do pass by. In fact, New York City earns three times as much using its phone booths as ad space than they do using them for their phone services.
The phone booth was not failed technology under any circumstance. It just became obsolete with the popularity of cell phones and internet communication services such as Skype. Recognizing industry trends, many companies are changing their business models. In 2001, BellSouth was the first phone company to exit the pay phone business. Many others including corporate giant AT&T would follow by the end of the decade.
In addition to technological advancements, phone booths have a separate inferiority: they are frequently vandalized. It is not uncommon to see explicit writing in pen or spray paint and the windows practically beg for hooligans to throw rocks. People leaving bars, intoxicated in the middle of the night are known to use them as restrooms. Even sober pedestrians use them as garbage cans.